Thursday, August 10, 2017

Handling Microaggressions in the Library, by Amanda M. Leftwich


As a young librarian in the field, no one told me about the microaggressions that I might face in the field. In fact, no other librarian of color mentioned it either. Seemingly, it’s something that you just deal with or something you talk about with your friends AFTER you leave librarianship all together. However dealing with microaggressions as either a young, person of color, gay/lesbian/trans, religious, disabled, or otherwise marginalized person cannot be ignored. Instead of being a passive recipient as I was in the past, here are some ways you can change the conversation.


  • First, confront the microaggression head on. It’s easier to shake your head and walk away when a harsh statement is thrown your way, but it’s not the best for you. Acknowledge the statement (i.e. “Where are you really from?” or “Your hair looks good that way! You look less confrontational that way!”) and start the conversation. Simply saying “this statement makes me uncomfortable please refrain from this language in the future” can help. Most people, especially in the workplace, do not want to be seen as insensitive. Starting the conversation in a non-defensive way can provide a learning opportunity for your fellow co-workers. If you are uncomfortable speaking with the aggressor directly, involve Human Resources (HR). Although this seems drastic, you must protect your well-being in the workplace. Keep a running tab of the aggressions faced with dates and how you addressed them. This will give the manager an idea of the issues you're facing. HR will be able provide a safe place to voice your concerns, and hopefully, find a solution.


  • On the flipside, you aren’t the “Rosetta Stone for Your Community”! While most people are genuinely curious about different cultures, sometimes the questions come off as intrusive. For example, someone frequently asking where your family is truly from OR how did you learn to speak English so well. Remember, you are a library employee, not the interpreter of your culture. You do not have to constantly explain your culture to anyone in the building! If a fellow employee consistently asks you questions about your culture, feel free to change the topic. Or simply say, “I don’t feel like speaking for my entire culture, I only speak for myself.” 


  • Find something you enjoy outside of work. This seems like an obvious one, but everyone needs an outlet. Whether its reading, knitting, running, etc. find something that makes you happy outside of work. This will not only help lower your stress levels, but remind you that there are enjoyable things in life during stressful times. For example, is there a local chapter of a multicultural association in your area (Black Caucus of the American Library Association, REFORMA, APALA, AJL, etc.)? If so, join them! Most memberships have library school student or first-year librarian rates. Becoming active in one (or several) of these organizations can help remind you that you aren’t alone. Membership can also help you find a mentor that’s been through similar experiences. If you’re more introverted try following some online spaces such as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) Twitter page.  


I’ve learned to handle microaggressions in the workplace, but I’m not made of stone. Looking back now, I wish someone would’ve provided me with a list of this nature. Hopefully, someone will not deal with any of the issues I’ve faced.


How about you? Has anyone else learned any valuable skills when faced with microaggressions?


Amanda M. Leftwich is a circulation supervisor for a small arts college in Philadelphia, PA. When she's not in the library she's watching fantasy/sci-fi t.v. shows, studying aromatherapy practices, travelling, or looking for her next foodie adventure! She tweets @thelibmaven.

16 comments:

  1. Thank you for your post. I started a new job and was taken aback by a comment that I perceived as hostile and a put down. I was careful to respond, after a moment's reflection so I could do it in a more neutral than angry way, with When you said X, I felt Y. Even though it was uncomfortable, I left feeling good about how I handled it. We need to call microaggressive behaviors out.

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    1. Thank you for your response! You have to be your own advocate, and you obviously have it down pat! Hopefully, this article will help others do so. Congratulations on the new job :)

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  2. I must disagree--a query or action is either aggressive or it is not, there is no "micro" about it. Aggressions should be covered and handled by policy and take personality out of the equation. Curiosity is not an aggression, it is a human condition based on personal experience. Humans think and related within contexts, and questions tagged as microaggressive are typically little more than people looking for commonalities that they can identify. Irrespective of the intent, an offense is only taken by the hearer. I choose neither to be offended nor to respond in kind. Trying to rectify microaggressions means making me responsible for fixing other people's problems, and that isn't possible.

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    1. You are responsible however, for understanding and unpacking how the language you choose to use with others, and the assumptions that you make about others and the context in which we live, effect every aspect of our relationships, professional and personal. You must be willing to address the very real possibility of having your own blinders on and be willing to take them off in order to have a better look at the situation.

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  3. Curiosity isn't aggressive, but the tone in which some of the comments are given are. That's the point of the article. It's usually not about what's said, but the tone in which was used. I'm not trying to police anyone, but help them understand that some comments aren't for the workplace. Most importantly, if someone feels uncomfortable that need to mention it right away. Thank you for your response.

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  4. Just found your blog through AL's newsletter. Love it! This is a very important topic. Thanks for writing about it.

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  5. Aloha from Hawaii,

    I found your article, and I would like share why I think we should replace the word "microaggression" with "stereotyping". Where I'm from, the word "micro" is a racist insult used towards Micronesians, who are heavily discriminated in Hawaii, therefore people are very reluctant to use the word "microaggression" when discussing race relations. I know you mean no harm by it, but I really think that terms should be retired.

    You can learn more by reading my blog post on the issue
    http://pablowegesend.blogspot.com/2016/04/racial-irritations-and-tiny-aggressions.html

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    1. Hi Pablo! I'd love to discuss this topic with you further about the language/vernacular surrounding this issue. I'll share your blog with other librarians to start a larger discussion.

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  6. Thank you for this article. I have been a practicing librarian for over 30 years. I am still dealing with these types of microaggressions on a regular basis. I often respond by asking, "If I said this to you, how would YOU feel?". Which usually stops the speaker in their tracks. It is extremely difficult to have a discussion about this topic at my workplace because I constantly have to deal with the "but I'm a good person" defense. So I just address the situations as they come up.

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    1. Hi Marsha! Thank you for your comments. That's a great point to mention the other person in your rebuttal. We need to address issues head-on and without reservation!

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  7. And thank you Amanda for addressing a very real issue that is so much a part of our culture that it becomes invisible until highlighted by those who have endured. No more enduring!

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  8. Exactly, no one has to just "deal" with things like this anymore. Thank you for your comment!

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  9. One of the wisest principles I follow comes from Don Miguel Ruiz's "The Four Agreements". The second agreement, "Don't take anything personally" has helped me a lot... note, it most definitely does not mean to ignore or endure the aggressions... rather, this touchstone helps me cultivate a response that is in proportion and without aggression myself. You talk about this in your first bullet point, when you counsel to start the conversation in a non-defensive way. This is so crucial for there to be any chance of progress. It doesn't make you responsible for another's behavior/speech. Honestly, if we don't speak up, nothing will ever change. Thank you for your contribution to moving along in a helpful way.

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    1. Hi Karl,

      Thank you for your kind words! By speaking up, we can make a difference. I hope it'll help someone in the future.

      Amanda

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  10. Precisely because I'm White and cisgendered female, I think it falls on me to address the innocent/ignorant comments that I hear (or, more often, overhear). It's easiest to say something when the comment is close to home but not about me. When a college-aged patron made a joke about gender-neutral bathrooms, I was able to open a conversation about my transgender child and how important it is for him to feel safe. When two separate phone patrons mentioned how they planned to base a creative project (art, musical composition) on "Native American culture," I engaged them in lengthy discussions about cultural appropriation and how there's not one single Indigenous culture.
    But I have not yet been able to call people out on run-of-the-mill sexist comments. I hope men will step up to help me out with that.

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